Vertical Report: Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon

A look into the past - and the future - for Hunter Valley's signature white.


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Semillon is the particular treasure of Australia's Hunter Valley. Tyrrell's top bottling of the variety, the Vat 1 Semillon, is well known for aging beautifully for decades. As Bruce Tyrrell told me for my report on Hunter Valley, "I have seen these wines live for up to 50 years, and any wine that has the ability to do that must be considered an international classic." We took a quick glance into the past, and into the future, of Vat 1. Here's what we found:

Though none of the bottlings that we tried were mature enough to demonstrate the resiny, biscutty, viscous character that older Semillon can display, the 1994 vintage (89 points) is starting to develop some lanolin aromas and flavors, though its sour citrusy core is still very evident. The 1995 (85 points) felt linear on the palate, and somewhat reductive. The 1996 and 1997 (both 86 points) still show sour lemon characters; they haven't started to deepen and develop secondary character (but for a light hint of resin creeping in to the 1997), even at 10 years of age. The 1999 vintage (89 points), which is just now being released in the U.S. market, had verve—a nice scour of acidity on the palate, plus lemon peel flavors. It is clearly still very young, but will likely outperform the more spare 1998 (87 points) in years to come.

The 1999 Vat 1 is the new vintage on the market; it bears repeating. Tyrrell's has sheds full of the wines aging for 5+ years in bottle at the winery before they're released, as though to underscore to collectors that the wines should not be drunk young. Tyrrell's shipped us previews of the 2002 through 2005 vintages, and it's easy to see why they hold onto them for so long. These younger wines are "more admirable than pleasurable" to drink, as one of my tasting companions noted; they taste quite sour in their youth. This isn't much of a surprise, given that, according to Tyrrell, grapes for the Vat 1 are generally picked a little green. The 2002 has feminine flavors of talc and green grape, though feels linear on the palate. The 2003 shows persistent citrus and mineral notes after some time in the glass; the 2004, some underripe but pleasingly intense peach and citrus flavors. The final wine of the lineup, the 2005, is softer and seems less destined for the long haul than its immediate predecessors, with banana and citrus flavors, and aromas that verge on tropical.

It's a hard enough exercise to extrapolate with confidence any wine's ageworthiness based on what's in the glass today. In the case of these young Semillons, though, it may be for the Millennials to enjoy Tyrrell's 21st-century Vat 1s at their best.

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